March 1, 2008
Revenge of the Slow
In the ultimate irony, the Italian journalist Carlo Petrini has created a global movement to combat globalism.
The Cornish Pilchard. The Chilean Blue Egg Hen. The Cypriot Tsamarella and Bosnian Sack Cheese. You haven’t seen these foods at McDonald’s because they are strictly local rarities championed by Slow Food, the social movement founded to combat the proliferation of fast food. McDonald’s is a multinational corporation: it retails identical food products on the scale of billions, repeatedly, predictably, worldwide. Slow Food, the self-appointed anti-McDonald’s, is a “revolution” whose aim is a “new culture of food and life.”
Slow Food began as a jolly clique of leftist academics, entertainers, wine snobs, and pop stars, all friends of Italian journalist and radio personality Carlo Petrini. Their galvanizing moment, which occurred in 1986, was an anti-McDonald’s demonstration at which Petrini and his dining buddies brandished pasta pans while folk-dancing in the streets of Rome. This prescient intervention predated Jose Bove’s violent wrecking of a French McDonald’s by some 13 years. While the anti-WTO crowd was politically harassing corporate globalizers, Slow Food was methodically building constructive alternatives. Today, Slow Food is well-nigh as “global” as McDonald’s but networked rather than hierarchical. Year by methodical year the Slow Food network has stuck its fingers into a host of pies.
As a nonprofit heritage organization, the Slow Food empire retains a mere 150 full-time employees with a modest budget of $37 million a year. Yet Slow Food has invented the modern Italian food-heritage industry. Today it is a thriving ganglion of local chapters, called convivia, which number about 83,000 people in more than 100 countries. It’s also a publishing house specializing in tourist guidebooks, restaurant recipes, and heritage reprints.
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The group is the suave host for massive international food events in Torino. Other Slow Food emanations include a hotel, various nonprofit foundations, and—in a particularly significant development—a private college. The University of Gastronomic Sciences, founded in 2004, is the training ground for 200-plus international Slow Food myrmidons per year, who are taught to infiltrate farms, groceries, heritage tourism, restaurants, commercial consortia, hotel chains, catering companies, product promotion, journalism, and government. These areas are, of course, where Slow Food already lives.
The university is particularly big on global travel for its assembled multinational studentry. As the anti-WTO radicals used to put it, “The resistance will be as global as capital.” Slow Food guru Petrini frames it another way: What if Chairman Mao was wrong when he claimed that a revolution is not a dinner party? As the spiritual, political, and ideological wellspring of all things “eco-gastronomic,” Slow Food has woven a set of quiet understandings with the city of Torino, the region of Piedmont, the Italian Foreign Ministry, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Petrini has become an international green guru who is on a first-name basis with Al Gore, Prince Charles, and Vandana Shiva.
The cleverest innovation to date is the network’s presidium system. The Slow Food “presidia” make up a grassroots bottom-up version of the European “Domain of Control” system, which requires, for instance, that true “champagnes” must come from the province of Champagne, while lesser fizzy brews are labeled mere “sparkling wines.” These presidia have made Slow Food the planetary paladin of local production. Slow Food deploys its convivia to serve as talent scouts for food rarities (such as Polish Mead, the Istrian Giant Ox, and the Tehuacan Amaranth). Candidate discoveries are passed to Slow Food’s International Ark Commission, which decides whether the foodstuff is worthy of inclusion. Its criteria are strict: (a) Is the product nonglobalized or, better yet, inherently nonglobalizable? (b) Is it artisanally made (so there’s no possibility of any industrial economies of scale)? (c) Is it high-quality (the consumer “wow” factor)? (d) Is it sustainably produced? (Not only is this politically pleasing, but it swiftly eliminates competition from most multinationals.) (e) Is this product likely to disappear from the planet otherwise? (Biodiversity must be served!)
For the foodstuff artisan (commonly dirt poor and neglected somewhere in the planet’s backwoods), Slow Food has a strong value proposal. It is, among its many other roles, a potent promotion machine. Transforming local rarities into fodder for global gourmets is, of course, profitable. And although he’s no capitalist—the much honored Petrini is more justly described as a major cultural figure—he was among the first to realize that as an economic system globalization destroys certain valuable goods and services that rich people very much want to buy. In a globalized “flat world,” the remaining peaks soar in value and become natural clusters for a planetary elite.
Genetically modified foods have infiltrated the world, but the GMO label is the kiss of death in the gourmet realm. Furthermore, the wealth generated by global-scale markets has to go somewhere. No McDonald’s board member will ever buy a million hamburgers. Italians are accustomed to the luxury trade, but a globalized Italian luxury item (available in any airport worldwide and likely made in China) has become a boring mass luxury. In today’s world, Coca-Cola is no longer a cultural threat to Europeans: it’s a corny relic. Coca-Cola itself sells niche products nowadays—weird performance drinks, peculiar fruit blends—but the ultimate niche product can’t come from a Coke factory, it must be a product that comes from an ultimate niche.
A local product with irreducible rarity can be sold to a small elite around the world. But it can’t be sold to mass consumers because it doesn’t scale up in volume, so it can never lose its cachet. The trick is in uniting these niches. A capitalist business has a hard time of that, but a cultural network is a different story. The goods found inside Eataly—a Slow Food–aligned megastore in Turin—are no mere groceries. Eataly’s tiny sacramental packages of gourmet products resemble boudoir perfumes redesigned by Greenpeace.
Slow Food, in its solemn wisdom, will methodically seek out local producers of the product, raise their consciousness, and then fly them to Italy and unite them in subsidized conferences. The group links local farmers, bakers, millers, and butchers with their peers in other countries: the “Terra Madre” global network. Having built this distribution net, Slow Food offers grants to needy producers for things like barns, butcher shops, and tractors. Then as a final twist, Slow Foodies cheerily eat the end products themselves.
The upshot is an obscure piece of rural heritage cunningly reengineered as a curated service/product in Europe’s modern food-heritage industry. To Americans it might seem paradoxical that Europe’s rural farmers could be at once blood-and-soil heritage patriots and culture-industry jet-setters whose star clients are wealthy politicized food theorists. But while McDonald’s mechanically peddles burgers to the poor, Slow Food acculturates the planet’s wealthy to the gourmand quality of life long cherished by the European bon vivant. They have about as much in common as an aging shark and a networked swarm of piranhas.